The Joy of Cardboard

"Cardboard Selection" There’s one detail in the current version of the printed Emergent Task Planner pad that has nothing to do with its functionality, and that is the thickness of the cardboard backer. It’s the one thing in the pad that has bugged me from the very beginning, but for economic reasons couldn’t fix.

Until now! Here’s a case study in home-grown product development.

Background

When I’d first started making the printed ETP pads for sale in 2009, I could afford custom ink formulation and great paper, but the lowly cardboard backer was surprisingly expensive and hard to source. This was one of many lessons about manufacturing at small scale: you’re limited by what your manufacturing partners can readily offer, so you work within those constraints if you want to minimize your initial investment. The printer could do the custom inks and source quantities of the paper because they already stocked those materials on a regular basis. They also stocked cardboard for making pads of paper, but thicker cardboard was a special order. As the run I was doing was the smallest possible size, and I was concerned with making the first pads as affordable as possible, I stayed with the regular cardstock. Although having to forgo nicer cardboard was disappointing (it was also a buck a sheet, which is a lot for per-unit cost), at the time it was more important for me to just bite the bullet and MAKE SOMETHING.

The standard cardboard that was available came in two thicknesses, which is measured in something called “points”. This is different from the points used in page layout, which are 1/72th of an inch. For paper weight, it’s a measure in thousandths of an inch, also called the “caliper”—I think this refers to the actual use of a caliper (a special kind of high-precision mechanical ruler) to measure it.

Anyway, I picked the 030 point cardboard, the thicker of the two choices. It’s considerably thicker than paper, but it lacks rigidity. In the first runs of the product, it was most important to have good paper, since that was the main aspect that bore directly on the tactile experience of the product in everyday use. The cardboard backer was a secondary part of the experience, and I wasn’t even sure if the pads would sell or if I’d lose my money.

Today, I’d say that the pads have met expectation, and they have continued to sell well enough that I’m no longer worried about recouping my investment in a print run. The cardboard issue, though, has continued to bug me. The flexible nature of the 030 point cardboard makes the pad feel a little “swimmy” in the hand. It’s fine when the pad is on a desk surface, but picking it up and moving it requires a little babying. It’s part of the product experience, and while I don’t think people really think of the lack of rigidity as a flaw in the design, maybe I’m missing out on an opportunity to make an additional positive impression. The last straw was a recent review on Amazon.com, where the extremely nice reviewer mentioned thicker cardboard as a “would be nice” feature. At last…I was not alone in my compulsion!

Prototyping the Product

Tactile experience is something that I’m sensitive to, and my automatic reaction to it might be the best indicator that the pursuit of stationery design isn’t so insane despite my lack of experience. It is like I can sense the bones of whatever I’m touching, able to visualize the underlying structure and material properties of its raw elements. What I am really reacting to is probably just relative weight, texture, and rigidity to other everyday experiences, but my reaction is so instant and immediate that it feels like a kind of clairvoyance. If I were to be more New Age about it, I’d say it is like the spirit of the material whispers to me. Magic or not, I’ve learned to trust it as much as my analytic side, as the combination of subjective and objective powers helps create a balanced design dialog. Plus, it’s fun!

Now that I have a track record with my printer (Papergraphics in nearby Merrimack, New Hampshire), I felt comfortable enough to ask again about cardboard stock. Frank, the owner, was willing to look into options for me. First was getting the paper reps to provide samples, which Frank took care of. Next, he made six prototypes of the pad using the samples, which I was able to look at yesterday. As I saw them all arrayed before me, using my own ETP designs, my first thought was that my printer is awesome.

I picked up each pad and allowed my gut reaction to take place. There were two kinds of cardboard: what seemed like thicker versions of the brown cardboard I was already using, and one that was a kind of coated paperboard. The cardboard thickness started to add the feel of “quality” to the pad at around 050 points. The thickest cardboard with 080 points, and reminded me of a delicious graham cracker crust. I really liked it and wanted to use it, but it was almost too thick relative to the paper it was supporting. The paperboard was just as rigid but was also thinner at 050 points. A different kind of material than the cardboard, and there is something about it that was appealing to me. For one thing, it’s 100% recycled paperboard, from a company that’s been making the stuff since the late 1800s. While it’s only 050 points thick, it was more rigid for its thickness than the other material (even the 080 points stuff had a slightly spongy feel to it). Frank mentioned that this material would be a bit easier to source too, so that was the clincher. An unexpected choice that I hadn’t directly asked for, which delighted me…that’s one of the benefits of working with a great printer. As a bonus, the paperboard is white, which would make the pad a little more special when compared to other products.

Updating the Product

This new paperboard will be used for the updated version of the Emergent Task Planner pads. This is my very first product update. Currently, the product on Amazon is a 75-sheet shrinkwrapped pad on 030 point cardboard selling for US$12.00. After making the StickyPad ETP packages, which feel really good in the hand, I wanted to also include a new instruction sheet (single color to keep costs down). Having seen how the 75-sheet pad has sold for the past few years at US$12.00, my gut feeling is that if I can drop the price to under 10 bucks I might see an increase in sales volume. Dropping the sheet count will allow me to do this, though between you and me it doesn’t really cut costs that much. Plus, adding thicker cardboard and the instruction sheet ADDS to the per-unit cost a bit, so charging less for the new package is a kind of economic step backwards. However, I THINK that the overall product will be more attractive at $9.99 than 50% more paper at $12. I’ll find out whether my gut was right or not.

Another advantage the new pads may have is future retail sales. The new pads should feel really good when you pick them up, which may be important for selling in a physical stores. I still haven’t mustered the courage to walk into a stationery store to try sell them a case, but that’s an upcoming consideration. I am curious also whether the stiffer pad actually will make it easier to put a tighter shrinkwrap on the product as well…we shall see!

The plan is to phase out the current supply of 75-sheet pads on Amazon. I have about 6 weeks of stock right now, which gives me time to produce the new pads. I have to design a new instruction sheet too. Since the ETP design itself hasn’t changed, I had those printed when doing last reorder of 75-sheet pads; they just need to be padded-up once the new paperboard backers arrive (2 weeks) and the instruction sheet is printed. It occurs to me that I haven’t actually checked to see what kind of paper the instruction sheet will be on; I should ask about samples.

One issue that I’m unsure about is how much confusion will result from having both products listed during the transition. I think I’ve made sure that the products are different enough (sheet count, features) that the choice is clear, but I’m a little concerned that there will be some resentment. However, NOT doing something because of what MIGHT happen is a great way to fail by not trying. I’ve had plenty of practice doing that over my lifetime, so I’m going to take the risk and find out what happens. Eep!